Friday, January 22, 2010

Michelle Mueller, reflections on Unitarian Universalist ministry

I felt disappointed that I can't attend more interfaith events because of my work schedule, like the upcoming Interfaith Understanding Conference in Rochester, NY I brainstormed what kinds of interfaith engagement I can do from home. I thought about what I can do by educating at Cherry Hill Seminary and then the work I do at the Unitarian Universalist church.

Right now our middle school group uses Neighboring Faiths, a UU curriculum that helps young people learn about religious traditions and even visit other worship sites. I am responsible for setting up the site visits for this class. So far the group has been to a Greek Orthodox church, and I am planning more trips. The Greek Orthodox youth leader said they would be interested in visiting out church next. I can set up more site visits and get to know other local religious leaders in the process.

This does not sound bad after all, and I will keep the Covenant posted on our site visits.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday, Dec. 7, 4:30pm at the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne – “Pagans and Religious Freedom” & the Tabebe story

[BTW, due to travel after the Parliament and subsequent health difficulties, I have been unable to type and use email for over a month.  The situation has improved somewhat and I am now getting caught back up and will be posting the rest of my Parliament reports.  Better late than never, I hope. -- DHF]

After viewing the Gyuto monks’ work, Anna and I went to the 4:30pm program – “Pagans and Religious Freedom”, a panel with Phyllis Curott, Patrick McCollum, and Grove Harris.  The panel was facilitated by Barbara McGraw.  Patrick said that Phyllis had been called away by Parliament business, but that she had given him her notes and that the panel would be joined by a last minute addition: David Garland, President of the Pagan Awareness Network.

Patrick, who works in the prison chaplains system in California, opened with observations that Pagans have the unique distinction of having been discriminated against by virtually every other religious group, including minority religions that have themselves been discriminated against by the dominant religions.  And so, he has always felt that “if we can achieve religious freedom for us, we can do it for all.”  He explained that he uses “Pagan” to refer to Neopagans & Wiccans, as well as Hindus, Shamans, etc. “since we are all usually lumped together by society.”

Patrick gave a little of his personal history, including the fact that his house was once firebombed by churches who “were trying to convince me that they loved me.”  He said that people often act from unfounded assumptions.  As an example he described a meeting of prison officials gathered to increase their understanding of Paganism.  They were afraid that if the prisoners learned magic they would be able to levitate over the walls and escape, or cast spells on the guards to make them obey the prisoners’ commands.

(I must confess that there is an aspect of this that has always concerned me.  While I don’t imagine anyone is going to levitate over a wall, if we really believe that magic works, aren’t there ethical issues with teaching it to prisoners?  I’m not one who equates spells with prayers, as some do.  I believe that magic works and that it works by reshaping reality on a pretty fundamental level, and so, theoretically, there are no limits to what it can do other than the limitations of our own minds.  Personally, while I am happy to share Paganism as a religious / devotional path with anyone interested, I will only teach practical magic to select, screened individuals… or at least, to those not currently serving time for criminal activities.  Fortunately, I trust the judgment and ethics of the folks I’ve met who do Pagan prison ministry.)

Patrick related stories of abuse of Pagan inmates.  One inmate with cancer needed to be transported under guard to a place where he could receive treatments.  The Christian guards refused to transport him if he wore his pentacle pendant.  The inmate refused to remove his pentacle and died as a result.  Patrick is a approved and credentialed prison chaplain, but he has been refused access to dying prisoners because the prisoner’s Paganism was not accepted as a “real” religion.  On at least one such occasion, while Patrick was being kept out, a Christian minister was at the dying prisoner’s bedside, urging a deathbed conversion.

Patrick told storied of loss of child custody, with which many in the audience had personal experience.  He also told the story of the Pentacle Quest, the long (successful) legal battle in the US for military Pagans who died in service to their country to be allowed to have a pentacle on the headstone.  He said that at one point the Veterans Administration proposed compromising by retroactively removing and ALL the religious symbols from ALL military headstones, and then disallowing them.  This was an absurd suggestion and was clearly proposed just so that the VA could say that the Pagans had taken everyone else’s religious symbols away.

Patrick noted that “Pagan activism is part of what got us HERE [meaning the Parliament] in the first place.”

He them told the story of his own long legal battle with the California Prison system over discriminatory treatment of Wiccan prisoners and chaplains.

[This was a bit confusing to the audience, I think, since he and Grove kept using American legal terms – like “amicus brief” – without explaining them.  Also, they didn’t make it clear until the very end that they were talking about a legal battle in California, and not with the national government.  This was especially important and confusing since the relationship between state and national law is very different between the US and Australia.  In the US, the Constitution trumps state law.  In Australia, their Constitution doesn’t address religion at all, so each state can make their own binding laws as they see fit.  Many Australians said that they really wished that they had a version of our 1st Amendment.]

Grove talked about the partnerships that were forged during the Pentacle Quest, especially with conservative groups who recognized the fundamental right for which we were fighting.  She referred to cases in the US involving opening prayers at civic meetings.  Many cities and counties have rules regarding such prayers that restrict them to monotheistic faiths.  Wiccans have applied and been refused.  So far, the courts have not always supported the Wiccan applicants, sometimes citing the vague concept of a “civic religion” in the US as expressed in things like “In God we trust” on our coins.  Grove noted that such restrictions would prevent the Dalai Lama from giving an opening blessing.

Grove briefly addressed cases of “witchcraft” in Africa and other parts of the world.  She observed that since in many cultures the main symptom of being cursed is “wasting away, the rise of AIDS has resulted in a corresponding rise in accusations of “witchcraft”.  At this point, she said that our connection with such cases of “witchcraft” is a tenuous one, based primarily on a shared experience of being scapegoated, since the “witchcraft” in question has little or nothing to do with what we understand as Neopagan Witchcraft.  She noted that she often finds herself falling into the trap of using more accessible and acceptable language – like using “Wicca” instead of “Witchcraft” and comparing spells to prayers – but she feels that something essential is lost when we make such accommodations.

Grove also made a point that would come up in the Q & A to the effect that when the Abrahamics are having their won dialogue, we should respect their space and not necessarily intrude or try to be included.

Patrick tried to present some of the material in Phyllis’ notes, which she had left with him.  The notes included a lot of numbers and statistics regarding accusations of “witchcraft” around the world… Every year, over 50,000 children are displaced for reasons relating to “witchcraft” allegations.  Over 100,000 women are displaced.  In the Middle East over 200 people each year are imprisoned or executed for practicing “witchcraft” or “magic”.  Sometimes, simply having a birth defect can result in an accusation of “witchcraft”.

Patrick again brought up his long legal battle and thanked Grove, me, and others for doing the work that built the relationships that have resulted in multi-faith support for Patrick and his fight.  He mentioned that Selena Fox of Circle gave the opening invocation for the Wisconsin legislature just a few months ago.

[BTW, and as a long aside / commentary…  I think it’s VERY problematic for us to bring up “witchcraft” accusations around the world.  On the one hand, the folks being accused of and executed or lynched for allegedly practicing “witchcraft” are NOT being accused of practicing Wicca or anything like it AND the vast majority of folks being accused are good Muslims and Christians who would most likely be horrified to be associated with us.  It confuses folks who are learning about us for the first time when they here us talk about the modern “religion” of Neopagan Witchcraft and African witchcraft trials in the same paragraph, as was evidenced by a Muslim man in the audience who left thoroughly confused and with whom Gavin Andrew (Media Officer of the Pagan Awareness Network) and I spent some time trying to clear things up.  On the other hand, the sad fact is that if we don’t bring up and shine a light on this particular atrocity, it’s unlikely anyone else will, and we DO have the common ground that the folks who are lynching “witches” would probably lynch Witches, too.  The best thing, IMO, is to bring up this issue in interfaith groups to which we already belong and with which we have strong relationships and try to get the group as a whole to take some action.  I know I’ll be doing this in the URI, for example.]

Patrick introduced David Garland, who said that he was very happy to have been added to this panel.  He explained that the Pagan Awareness Network is the largest and longest running Pagan network in Australia, and that it came about because he lost everything when he was outed as a Witch.  David said that “unlike the US, Australia doesn’t have ‘recognized’ religions, just religious organizations”.  [Note: This was an error based on the language used by the Americans.  The US doesn’t have “recognized” religions either.  When we use the word, it’s in the context of a government body acknowledging that a Pagan person or group has the same rights as other religious people and groups, e.g. when the IRS gives a group a religious tax status, or the Army chaplains’ manual includes an entry on Wicca.  We will often say that the government body in question “recognized” the Craft, but that’s shorthand for an individual victory, not a general status awarded by the government.]  What David really focused on was that while the US Constitution has a First Amendment protecting religious liberty, the Australian Constitution does not mention religion at all.  This allows Australian states to pass discriminatory laws without there being any easy legal recourse to fight them.  The state of Victoria has a “Racial & Religious Tolerance Act”, but it is the only state with such legal protections.

David told the story of a prominent Witch in Melbourne who was publicly blamed by local Evangelical ministers for the state’s financial problems.  She was able to use the Act to prosecute the ministers for “hate speech”.

PAN and other groups have been working on a “Pagan dash” campaign, urging Pagans to list their religion in the national census as “Pagan – Witch” or “Pagan – Heathen” , etc., so the government counts all these groups as one large population instead on many small ones.  If the Pagan population reaches 1% of the total count, then that opens the door to a number of government perks, including being included and listed whenever the state does anything involving religion.  David thanked Llewellyn Publications for the influx of books that is resulting in the swelling of Pagan numbers, but he noted that this is importing n American view of Wicca and Paganism.

Barbara McGraw closed the panel by acknowledging the Hindu American Foundation, was very active at this Parliament and had made a number of overtures towards intra-Pagan friendship, including submitting an amicus brief on behalf of Patrick’s legal case.

During the Question & Answer period, T. Thorn Coyle asked Grove to say some more about not Pagans not pushing into groups that are currently only Abrahamic (basically Christians, Muslims, and Jews).  Grove said that there are interfaith groups that are specifically focused on intra-Abrahamic reconciliation, that these groups need to have this space, and that we should stay out.  I agree with this.  However, Grove also said that it was her opinion that if an interfaith organization happened to be made up of only Abrahamic groups and ha be3en working fine for many years, that such a group will have built up their own working dynamic upon which we shouldn’t try to intrude.  Grove and I have talked about this before, and I disagree.  I think that if a group describes itself as and positions itself as THE interfaith council of Whatever City, then any religious / spiritual groups in that community should be involved, if they want to be.  Otherwise, we just maintain the status quo, cede positions of community influence to the existing religious “old boys” network, and make it harder for any minority religion to make a difference.  I only support giving the Abrahamic religions their “space” when they create groups specifically for that purpose.

Several people wanted to know what the “five sanctioned faiths” in America are, which pointed out the confusion between the specifics of Patrick’s legal case against the California Department of Corrections and US national policy.  Barbara and Patrick tried o clarify this and explained that the California Department of Corrections recognizes Protestant Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Native American religion (i.e. “the faiths the writers of the Constitution knew about”) as “first tier faiths”, while classifying all other faiths as “second tier”.  The state’s position is that as long as all the faiths in a tier are treated the same as all the others in that same tier, then they are not discriminating.

This was followed by a discussion of teaching magic to prisoners.  Patrick and Barbara said that prison officials sometimes object that they don’t want prisoners learning how to fly over the walls and escape or how to cast spells on guards to let them out.  Patrick and Barbara laughed these stories off, explaining that 1) if magicians could fly you’d see a lot more of them doing so and 2) “spells” are really a lot like “prayers”.  Personally, I don’t think that spells are much like prayers at all (especially when I compare their success rates) and I have serious ethical qualms about teaching magic to prisoners.  I would like to see a lot more discussion about this in our community.

Paul Eppinger, Executive Director of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, said that he ha attended a few Pagan programs and was still looking for a one-sentence definition of “Pagan” or “Wiccan”.  This was greeted with great laughter from all the Pagans in the room, followed by a serious suggestion that he come speak with the panelists and others after the program.

Mark, a local minister, retired Army chaplain, and advisor to immigrant detention centers, said that the Bible says that “by their fruits, ye shall know them”.  What, she asked, are the fruits he should look for to know good Pagans?  Patrick seemed to understand the question in more of a historical sense and answered that one of the fruits of Paganism is Christianity, since so much of Christianity was adopted whole cloth from its Pagan antecedents.  He then mentioned the many Pagan responses to natural disasters in the US as examples of “fruits”.

Returning to the previous questioner, Patrick said that “Pagan” might be an umbrella for an idea, the idea of the sacredness of everything & everyone else.

Grove chimed in and said that she used “Pagan” as an umbrella for Earth-based spiritual practices.  She said that she often uses the word “Wicca”, but recognizes that she’s not really using it “correctly”.  As to “fruits”, Grove pointed to the great concern that Pagans have for ecology.  Pagans understand, she said, that there is no “away” to throw things to.

David said that he definitely agreed with Grove and pointed to efforts of local Australian Pagans to have food drives and collect blankets.  The problem they’ve had is that once organizations learn who’s bringing the offering, the donations are rejected.

Barbara invited Pagans in the audience who had long histories relating to Pagans & Religious Freedom if they would like to say a few words.  Don?...

I stood up and said that I had a story that was exactly on point, but would take too long, so folks should ask me about the Tabebe later.  (I’ll append the story to this report.)  Instead, I talked about how important it is that we have been doing interfaith for enough time that we can now move beyond just explaining who we are to collaborating with other faith traditions on matters of religious freedom and community service, an opportunity to put our principles into practice.

Chris LaFond of EarthSpirit also talked about community service and how he is involved with an interfaith choir.

Michael York talked about having a Pagan Studies program at his university and the gains Pagan Studies have made in the American Academy of Religion.

Abdul Selim, the Muslim man I mentioned above, said that he was Saudi living in the US.  He was confused about why Wicca / Witchcraft would be persecuted in Muslim countries.  He also asked lots of questions wondering: “Who do you pray to?”  “What do you think of evolution?” …and a host of others.  It was clearly too much to address in the few minutes we had left, so he was directed to talk to folks after the program.

The last person in the Q & A was Mihir Meghani of the Hindu American Foundation.  He said that it was important that white, American Pagans identify themselves as Pagans when they travel, since most of the world assumes that all white people are Christians.  It’s important that the rest of the world see that technologically advanced Westerners can be something other than Christian.

The program ended with lots of applause.  Clearly, it was very well received.  Gavin of PAN and I spoke with Mr. Selim in the hall and tried to explain the difference between Wicca as a religion and the accusations against folks in Saudi Arabia and Africa.  It took a while, but he seemed to understand.

The Tabebe story…

In 2004, I was part of the Parliament Assembly, a group of 450 religious representatives and reps from organizations like the Red Cross and the World Bank who met at Montserrat for a few days in advance of the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona.  We were charged with working on the four themes of that Parliament: access to clean water, the plight of refuges, 3rd World debt, and ending religious violence.

We started out by meeting in small groups of eight or so and each sharing a personal story relating to one or more of the themes.  My group included Mussie Hailu, Vice Chair of the United Religions Initiative and someone with whom I’ve worked in interfaith since the mid-1990s.  Mussie is a Coptic Christian from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  He told us that in Ethiopia there is an ethnic group called the Tabebe.  The Tabebe possess the power of “tenkwe” – literally “far seeing”.  One can be born into the Tababe, or else discover that one has the power of tenkwe and go to the Tabebe for training.  The Tabebe speak with nature spirits.  People go to the Tabebe to have their fortunes told, for charms, for healing, etc.  So far so good.  They sound a lot like Gypsies, or Witches.

However, if a member of your family falls mysteriously ill, you figure out which of the Tabebe must have cursed the person… and kill them to break the curse.  The government turns a blind eye to this.  In fact, the Tabebe are considered so disreputable that they are not allowed to settle in cities, their children are not allowed to attend public school, and they are not allowed in the hospitals.

When Mussie and his interfaith partner Sr. Laetitia Borg set out to create the first interfaith organization in Addis Ababa – a cooperation circle of the URI – he said that they should reach out to the Tabebe.  Sr. Laetitia, like most people, didn’t see the Tabebe as a religious group and didn’t see a need to include them.  At the next Global Summit of the URI, in Stanford CA, Mussie came up to me and (without any of this back story) told me that I needed to tell Sr. Laetitia all about Wicca.  We had a long conversation over lunch, end up friends, and did a blessing ceremony together at the end of the conference.

Mussie and Sr. Latitia went back to Adis Ababa and founded a URI group in Ethiopia.  They included the Tabebe and for their logo they used a variation on an early URI logo that included a pentacle among its religious symbols.  As they expected, religious reps in Ethiopia asked why they were including the Tabebe, and they asked why they were using this symbol (the pentacle) associated with magic).  Mussie and Sr. Laetitia explained that the pentacle is the symbol of Wicca and that Wicca is an international religion that speaks with nature spirits, looks into the future, does magic and healing… just like the Tabebe.

As lightbulbs lit over the heads of religious rep after religious rep, the Tabebe were accepted in the interfaith community, and this acceptance led to changes in government attitudes.  It is now against the law to kill a Tabebe and such crimes are prosecuted.  They can live in cities.  Their children can go to school.  They have access to health care.

All of this directly follows from the courageous actions of a few people and the kind of relationships and conversations that interfaith work fosters.

My fellow Pagans often ask me why we should do interfaith work.  I have many standard answers, but after hearing this story from Mussie, I have now added that we should do this work to help preserve the lives of our fellow Earth religionists and create a future for their children.

Blessed Be,
Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tikkun article on Pagans at the Parliament

There was a nice article in Tikkun Pagans at the Parliament . As with most newspaper articles there are facts that aren't quite right (esp. affiliations) but it is in general quite positive.

Rowan Fairgrove

South Bay Interfaith Dialog meeting January 13th

On January 13th, I went to a South Bay Interfaith Dialog meeting at the Pacifica Institute. This is a Turkish-American commumity organization promoting cross-cultural awareness, attaining peace with their neighbors and providing a meeting place where people of all walks of life can interact with each other.

There were twenty seven attendees including representatives of Methodist, Buddhist, Islamic, Unitarian, Lutheran, Baptist, Jewish, Episcopal, Christian Science, Wiccan communities and organizaitons, plus a Habitat for Humanity interfaith coordinator and a County Human Relations Commissioner.

This meeting is primarily a post-Parliament event to talk about how to continue as a partner city. Andy shared the slide show on "Developing an Interreligious Community: How Silicon Valley Used the Partner City
Process". The slides are available at

There was a great deal of discussion about what being a Partner City might look like and also what the South Bay actually needs/wants in the way of interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The next lunch meeting will be on 2/11.

There will some announcements:

This Sunday evening, 1/17 at the Levy Family Campus of the JCC there will be an opening for Holocaust Stories of Redemption, a traveling exhibition from the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

Habitat for Humanity proposes doing a bay area interfaith home build.  It would be a house sponsorship and joint build. It takes about $50,000 and the build would be in 2011.

Rowan Fairgrove

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Michelle Mueller, back home

I'm back from my long journey to Australia for the Parliament of the World's Religions. I just want to add that Sydney is a very magickal city. I was there for a few days at the end of my trip. I mentioned finding the Theosophical Society in a previous post. I also discovered a Sydney Masonic Center and Rudolf Steiner bookstore. Unfortunately, the Sydney Masonic Center was not open when I passed by. It seemed a relatively new lodge. I learned about Rudolf Steiner's role in the establishment of Waldorf schools. Despite being a professional religious educator and a Pagan, I never knew that the Waldorf system of education was founded by a psychic-mystic!